Themes and Meanings
Just as James Joyce made Dublin a microcosm of modern European consciousness, so has Milan Kundera transformed Prague and the Czechoslovak experience into a microcosmic model of contemporary European destiny. He fears the loss of a European cultural heritage that he finds embodied in the Central European experience. Kundera chronicles the forced expulsion of culture and history from Central Europe by its Russian overlords and the dissipation of the same culture by the cacophony of the Western media. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting juxtaposes sexual farce, fairy tale, historical chronicle, political tract, literary criticism, autobiography, and musicology to offer multiple views of contemporary existence.
Just as Tamina is being led away to the children’s island of “forgetting about forgetting,” she regains a fragment of her memory. In a sudden moment of deja vu, the clay slope of the riverbank brings back a visit she made to her husband at the construction site where he last worked in Czechoslovakia. She remembers the moment in all of its love and anguish and despair and suddenly realizes that her grief has content as well as form—a content for which she must continue to search. Yet it is too late for Tamina; the boat has arrived, and Raphael leads her to her Lethean journey across the river. His pleasant and infectious laughter, echoed by the boy who rows the boat, seduces Tamina with a promise of peace and joy. She steps into the boat, and her destiny is sealed.
Kundera implies that once an individual joins the laughing circle of certainties, the possibilities for questions and searching are forgotten. Defection from the assured circle allows one, again, to choose and question, but then one will forever suffer the grief of individuality and lonely knowledge. It is this self-awareness and individual consciousness that defines Western culture for Kundera. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting asks if the individual can survive in the contemporary world.